All birds need to wash to keep their feathers in good condition and Mute Swans are a dramatic and accessible (being on many lakes in local parks) way to observe just how vigorous and thorough this process needs to be. A family of five Mute Swans were washing recently (alongside some synchronised swimming Mallards, as you will see) and the photo’s show how they separate their feathers so that water gets to every part. Surprisingly little research has been done into this process but when birds are deprived of water, they have been shown to be much clumsier in flight. Regular washing is essential to condition the feathers and helps reduce damage from mites, lice and bacteria. This is why it is worth having even a little bird bath in your garden if you don’t have open water nearby. Conditions: Alternating grey and bright days. Temperature: Max 5 Min 0C.
I love watching the Heron skulking in the reeds, or taking off on the unique, lazy, m-shaped flight which you might watch on any wetland, estuary, or on the lake in your town park, transforming from a static shadowy, hunched form, unfolding
to an elegant, airborne giant in seconds. In Greek mythology Herons were thought of as bringers of bad luck. Heron’s feed in shallow water, and the Greeks realised this meant their presence would reveal, to enemies, the shallow crossing places they could use to invade. Herons used to appear on upper-class menus, as this recipe from the 1400’s shows: “Take a heron…serve him…scalding and drawing and kuttyng the bone of the nekke away, and let the skyn be on…roste….his sause is to be mynced with pouder of ginger, vynegre and mustard”. Thankfully, they (and we) are now protected from this practice! Conditions: A bright morning becoming grey and very wet. Temperature: Max 9 Min 7C.
I was delighted recently to be able to photograph Starlings in their winter plumage (bills no longer yellow, pale spots on body, feathers less iridescent) but this is a sad reflection on just how much their populations have plummeted, with 40 million birds lost from the European population since 1980. Even over winter, when our populations are boosted from central Europe, this once common bird has suffered what Michael McCarthy, in his great book “The Moth Snowstorm” terms a ‘great thinning’ suffered by so many of our species. The noisy, social Starling is, shockingly, now on the red (endangered) list and since 2012 the RSPB has been carrying out research to ascertain why. It may be due to loss of invertebrates which it feeds on (especially Crane Fly larvae, known as Leatherjackets), or nesting sites- they don’t yet know. Conditions: Grey, mild and wet weather continues. Temperature: Max 11 Min 9C.
Wigeon: here is another easy to identify duck, larger than the Teal I featured recently and, unless you live in Scotland and the North of England where they breed, more likely to be spotted over winter on wetlands and coastal areas, like these at Spurn. Our populations are boosted by over-wintering influxes from Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia. A dabbling duck, feeding in large and often mixed groups in shallow water, on eel grass and pond plants, often eating up the weed disturbed by larger water-birds, they will also graze in groups on grassland. If you are trying to identify them, the male is the most easily distinguished, and Wigeon show a lot more white- on their bellies and the males on their wings when in flight-
than when on water. Conditions: A grey day after a gorgeous sunny day at Spurn yesterday. Temperature: Max 8 Min 5C.
The Curlew calling is one of the most evocative sounds and this one’s call was echoing across the Humber Estuary yesterday, in fading light. With their long, decurved bills these, the largest of our wading birds, are unmistakable but sadly becoming rarer. Curlew are now on the red/ endangered list. They overwinter mostly on estuaries and coast’s like this eastern one, to feed deep in the mud and
sand, on shellfish, shrimp, worms and other invertebrates. Their name may derive from the old French ‘corliu’, ‘messenger’ (related to courier- to run). Conditions: Quite a dramatic time to be on the far eastern coast of England, with 50 mph winds and showers, hopefully bringing more of our winter migrants to land. Temperature: Max 6 Min 6C.
Pink Footed Geese do not breed in the UK but we host almost all their population over winter and the numbers are increasing, probably due to better protection of roosting sites. These medium-sized, dark bodied Geese with Pink bills, legs and feet (as their name rather illustrates), fly in from Iceland, Spitsbergen and Greenland, a migration of over 2,000 miles for some, and if you hear the wonderful sound of geese overhead, as we did recently, you may be able to see a stunning skein of them flying in v-formation, the lead constantly changing to rest those taking on the headwinds. They are the geese you will hear and see flying over Sheffield and many other parts of the UK, from now on, to feed at estuaries and farmland, on grain, cereals, potatoes and grass. Many years ago I had the wonderful experience of staying at the lake-edge, with friends who worked at
and hearing and seeing huge flocks at dawn and dusk, coming in to roost and feed on potatoes collected from local Lancashire farms. Unforgettable. Conditions: Grey and cool with some drizzle. Temperature: Max 7 Min 2C.
Teal- if you have difficulty telling different ducks apart, the Teal is a good one to start with. At this time of year the Teal come further South, and West, from their moorland breeding places, and populations get boosted by arrivals from the Baltic and Siberia. These lovely dabbling ducks can therefore be seen, often in large groups, on estuaries and shallow scrapes and bodies of water, noisily sifting for seeds and small invertebrates. Teal are much smaller than Mallard, and even the female has the
stunning green wing patch but the males have very distinctive head markings and a triangle of cream at the back of their small bodies. Conditions: The mild, sunny spell continues, with colder times forecast over the weekend, so we will be getting our tender plants in. Temperature: Max 14 Min 8C.